It took a telephone call from United States President Joseph Biden last Friday (July 9) afternoon to convince President Vladimir Putin to abandon his “principled” stance on upholding Syria’s sovereignty and to grant consent to keeping the corridor for delivering humanitarian aid to the rebel-controlled Idlib province open. Until then, tense talks at the United Nations Security Council appeared to hit a wall: Russia refused to extend the compromise reached a year prior, which had authorized the Bab al-Hawa border crossing from Turkey. But after the Putin-Biden phone call, Moscow suddenly lifted its firmly formulated objections at the last minute, without any conditions (Izvestia, July 9). This uncharacteristic flexibility was, in fact, perfectly pragmatic within the regional context of the deepening humanitarian disaster in the war-ravaged and despotically ruled Syria. It should not, however, be seen as a shift in Russia’s external behavior toward a more stable and predictable pattern, as the Biden administration would like (Carnegie.ru, July 8).
Indeed, Putin was ready to discuss Idlib at the June 16 Geneva summit with Biden, bringing there his special envoy for Syria, Aleksandr Lavrentyev; but the US president preferred to keep the discussion short and focused on strategic stability. So Washington’s position remained in favor of expanding trans-border aid deliveries, as presented by Secretary of State Antony Blinken at the UN Security Council meeting in late March (Kommersant, July 8). Russian officials insisted emphatically that the mechanism for transporting aid through border crossings not controlled by the Syrian government had outlived its temporary purpose and that all international aid should be brought in via Damascus (RIA Novosti, July 7). Moscow was not actually interested in blocking the UN Security Council resolution on prolonging the arrangement for the Bab al-Hawa corridor, and it had tried to engage in bargaining aimed at increasing the volume of aid available for the Bashar al-Assad regime (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, July 7). Accordingly, Lavrentyev held a meeting with Turkish and Iranian officials in the so-called “Astana format,” but no meaningful progress on the massive problem of Syria post-war reconstruction was achieved then (TASS, July 9).
What upset Russia’s bargaining tactics and compelled Moscow to agree on preserving the cross-border mechanism for another year was the strong shift of international attention and US concerns away from Syria and toward the unfolding crisis in Afghanistan (The Insider, July 2). Russian officials and pundits developed a penchant for criticizing the ineffectiveness of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s (NATO) intervention in that 20-year-old war zone; but the appearance of a direct security challenge to Russia from this direction caught them by surprise (Novaya Gazeta, July 7). The fast-moving withdrawal of US and NATO troops has encouraged the Taliban to launch a series of new offensives aimed particularly against the northern provinces, and Moscow suddenly finds it has to respond to urgent appeals from Tajikistan for emergency security assistance (Moscow Echo, July 6). Russia is treaty bound to help this ally protect its borders; but in real terms, it is extremely reluctant to commit troops and resources to this task. Russia prefers to engage in negotiations with the Taliban, despite the fact that this militant group is defined by Russian legislation as an illegitimate terrorist organization (Kommersant, July 10).
On Friday, Biden saw no point in discussing this grave concern with Putin. Rather, he had to raise another issue that reduced the Syrian conundrum to the “also touched upon” category in the difficult conversation—ransomware attacks (RBC, July 9). The agreement to launch bilateral consultations focused on easing tensions in the unregulated cybersecurity domain was one of the main outcomes of the Geneva summit, but the satisfaction in Moscow over these long-proposed joint deliberations has turned out to be short-lived (Russiancouncil.ru, June 22). The sharp escalation, in recent weeks, of ransomware and cyberattacks attributed to Russian groups undercut the fragile beginning of confidence-building, and the Kremlin’s duly issued denials conspicuously fit its past pattern of fake denials of multiple misdeeds and crimes (Kommersant, July 9). The evidence implicating Russia-based gangs of hackers is still inconclusive, but Biden found it necessary not only to demand from Putin effective measures against them but also to go public with warnings that Russia would be held responsible (RIA Novosti, July 9). It is doubtful whether Putin is able or willing to restrain the hackers connected with various Russian special services, but he certainly needs to show resolve to stand firmly against US pressure.
By agreeing to grant consent to the UN humanitarian work in Syria, he probably sought (but not quite succeeded) to lessen this pressure as well as to demonstrate that high-level dialogue was the only way to resolve contentious issues. This message is addressed primarily to the Europeans, since the question about restoring political ties with Russia and holding a summit with Putin is highly divisive inside the European Union (Rosbalt.ru, July 6; see EDM, June 28). Putin may not be so keen to partake in such a quarrelsome summit, but he certainly aims at relaunching dialogue with Germany and at influencing the outcome of this year’s elections in this key European power (Russiancouncil.ru, July 9). Chancellor Angela Merkel has been a difficult but effective partner, and the Kremlin hopes that her successors (rather than the maverick “Greens”) will opt to preserve those ties, while perhaps commanding significantly less political capital (Rossiyskaya Gazeta, July 4). Refraining from the usual crude interference in German elections, Moscow expects to help influential pro-Russian lobbies in Europe to regroup, which would help in recruiting new members into corrupt networks, like for instance former Austrian foreign minister Karin Kneissl, who has joined Rosneft’s board of directors (Gazeta.ru, July 5).
Taking a cooperative stance in Syria, Russia sacrificed the leverage to demand but gained the position to encourage the EU and other donors to expand humanitarian aid coming to Damascus, thus contributing to the stabilization of the al-Assad regime and confirming a Russian “victory.” What made it easier for Putin to perform a flexible retreat from the maximalist demand for full control over the delivery of aid was the profound indifference to the Syrian deadlock in Russian public opinion, which is primarily concerned (and increasingly dissatisfied) with domestic matters (Levada.ru, July 7). Putin’s attempts to mollify the angst caused by the gross mismanagement of the deadly COVID-19 pandemic and to push the blame for it to lower-level bureaucrats are far from reassuring. Whereas, his craving for a trend-breaking coup in the international arena is rising. A de-escalation of tensions with the West may please some business elites, but the unfathomable and feared “masses” are growing only angrier with their plight, so Putin’s security services prepare to put the vision of a fateful clash of interests and values—as presented in the newly revised National Security Strategy (see EDM, July 6)—into practice.